The International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that I attended last weekend was, true to form, delightful. This wonderfully casual event usually takes place under brilliant cloudless skies, on the lush green grounds of Linfield College, a small liberal arts school in the little down of McMinnville, Oregon.
Three days of wine tastings, seminars, and remarkable meals are traditionally kicked off on Friday morning with a “keynote” speech from an invited guest, often a member of the wine media.
This year’s guest was Joshua Wesson, the sommelier and founder of Best Cellars, a wine retailing concept that he sold recently to A&P. Wesson has had a long career in the wine business, and has earned many distinctions, including being named the Best Sommelier in French Wines & Spirits in the United States in 1984, and one of the top five sommeliers in the world in 1986. He speaks regularly at wine and food events around the country, including the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, which was where I met him for the first time a few years ago when I was also a speaker.
After being introduced by Anna Matzinger, the president of the Board of IPNC, Wesson stepped up to the podium wearing a full commencement gown with a purple doctoral sash, and a mortarboard.
He then proceeded to deliver the most hilariously funny wine speech I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. It was utterly brilliant, down to his spot-on impression of Julia Child in the midst of it.
Later that day, I asked Josh if he would let me publish it in its entirety, not wanting you to miss any of its highlights.
He hemmed and hawed.
I pestered him. I even played the “hey-i’m-a-fellow-Jew-in-the-wine-business” card. But he just wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
I can understand. If I had created such a masterpiece, I’d be clingy too. I guess he didn’t know just how famous I could make him.
So I’m left providing you with my notes from the speech. As usual, despite how fast I can type, there’s a lot missing, and I’ve paraphrased, condensed, edited, embellished where I didn’t get and can’t remember what he said, and in all likelihood, messed some of it up. The funny bits are his, and the lousy bits are probably mine.
I can only hope that Wesson chooses to publish the speech somewhere eventually, as it was truly epic. And I hope that you enjoy my attempts to capture it here.
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Thank you to the distinguished members of the IPNC executive committee. Before I begin my remarks I’d like to say just how impressed I am at how many of you are here this morning. When I see so many people in folding chairs, I always think there is a job fair nearby.
I have a simple question for all of you. Is anyone else here really hung over? I drank enough library wine last night at the founder’s dinner to endow a new wing here at Linfield.
The last time I was invited here as a guest was in 1993. That was the year my good friend Jim Clendenen planted the Chia Pet that would grow into his fully formed mullet. That year it took me a week to get here from New York. I was therefore reluctant to return. I was relieved to learn that this year I had been upgraded from Greyhound to Delta coach. They were also kind enough to cover the cost of my first beer and a snack box. When I addressed the IPNC for the first time in 1993, I stepped out on a limb and made some predictions about the approaching millennium, which I’d like to read to you now:
“Fellow oenophiles, as we sit here listening to the red hot sounds of Tag Team’s Whoomp There It Is, we know that, like our generation, this is music that will stand the test of time. I believe that one day in our distant future, the Austrian-born action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger will become governor of California and preside over two terms of relatively constructive policies. I believe that one day a high-speed network of interconnected computers will arise that will enrich the lives of mankind to the point that we will lose interest in idle chitchat, gambling and pornography. I believe that I will open a chain of retail wine stores specializing in under-$10 Pinot Noir, where things will be organized by tasting notes like wet dog, smelly diaper, and burnt tires.”
I was mostly right, it turns out.
Today I have to begin my speech with troubling news. We’ve run out of the grilled salmon special. Those of you haven’t ordered it, you’ll need to settle for the pan-fried trout. I also hear that the skate is quite good.
I should let you know that I wasn’t the first choice for this year’s speaker. Clive Coats and Serena Sutcliffe both were already booked. Andrea Immer-Robinson was working on her new TV show. They asked Robert Parker, who declined, moving on to James Suckling, Stephen Spurrier, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Mark Oldman, David Schildknecht, Elin McCoy, Anne Noble, Robert Joseph, and then Malcolm Gluck. None of them could make it. Eventually I was asked. I want to be clear that I’m completely OK with my placement in this list. I was told that there were a few more in line behind me. Like Wendell Biggs, Applebee’s new VP of Cold Drinks. And Shirley Clamp, Air Tran’s Director of In-flight Snacks. And Phil Sorvino, the newest wine aisle manager at Albertson’s Eugune store.
My second confession is that I grossly misunderstood today’s ceremony. I was under the impression that this was to be a commencement ceremony for graduating oenologists. Imagine my chagrin when I learned that all you are looking for is an excuse to drink some Pinot Noir.
So I prepared a commencement address. And now you’ve just got to be satisfied with that.
My goal today is to be half as funny as Jancis Robinson. Note to self: please, please, no jokes about British dental habits.
[ Editor’s Note: At this point Wesson stepped down from the podium, to the stage. As he did, the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance rose from the loudspeakers, and Wesson turned and mounted the steps to the podium once again and stood at the microphone. ]
Ladies and gentlemen, faculty, staff and the graduating class of the International Pinot Noir College, welcome to McMinnville. The authorities have suggested that for me to speak for more than 20 minutes is inhumane, and I’ve been told if I can finish in 15 minutes I can stay for lunch.
I’m flattered to be here in front of you, and I’m very happy to be able share some of my grape stained wisdom with you. Isn’t that why you’ve got me here, to talk about me? So enough about you. To hell with you.
I was born in Queens and moved quickly thereafter to Brighton Beach, and a few years later to lower Manhattan. If my family made one more wrong move I would have been on a boat off Ellis Island headed back to the old country.
We eventually ended up in the vinous mecca, of West Orange, New Jersey, where I was primed for greatness in food and wine. The pinnacle of gastronomy there was five White Castles and a large drink. You see, it’s the acid in the drink that cuts through the fat of the slider, and the sugar echoes the sweetness in the catsup and the steamed onion.
By the way if there’s anyone here from West Orange, I need a ride home on Sunday.
I didn’t have any serious wine or food sensibility, let alone any influence from Pinot Noir. My family repeatedly drew its culinary inspiration from a Jewish cookbook whose primary directive was “bake until brown and then boil.”
I do remember my first wine and food pairing, which was Maneschewitz and Gefilte Fish. It hit me like a lightning bolt, and it was a singular clear message: Convert. To. Any. Other. Religion.
Really though, it was a timeless lesson to trust your palate more than any voice on high. It was born of 6000 years of history from Moses to Sandy Koufax. That wisdom is sage and has been ever since, from those early sips of Concord to last night’s Nebuchadnezzar of 1987 Adelsheim Pinot Noir.
When it comes to wine wisdom, we used to be satisfied with simple rules: white with fish, red with meat. But simplicity isn’t the virtue that it used to be. Today we want to know more about our partners. Which is why I recommend using protection.
Twenty years ago I was hosting a luncheon that was honoring Robert Mondavi and Julia Child, and their contribution to America’s culinary and wine culture. Having recently co-authored a book called Red Wine With Fish, I had selected a menu consisting of seafood pairings with our favorite red grape.
Many of you know that Julia liked to drink. I was watching her carefully and counted that Julia had had three glasses of wine before we sat down to lunch. We were seated at a raised head table. Bob Mondavi was on my left, Julia on my right.
The first course was seared scallop in beurre rouge sauce paired with a Pinot Noir from Mondavi Winery, and after taking a bite, Julia took a sip, leaned over and said “Josh, I’m not sure I really care for this wine.”
I said, “Julia, Bob’ right there and there are 500 people out there in the dining room listening, so I think you ought to keep your opinions to yourself.”
She finished the glass, and motioned the waiter to come fill it up again.
She took another sip, and said, barely covering up the mic this time, “I’m afraid it’s too earthy, I really don’t know if it comes together.”
I said, “Julia, you may be right, I may be wrong, we may be crazy. But, please, don’t share this with anyone.”
“OK,” she said, downing the rest of what was her fifth glass of wine.
The sommeliers poured her a sixth. She took a sip, and turned to me, leaning close to the microphone which she proceeded to ignore.
“I think this wine tastes like…” She took another sip.
“I’m certain this wine tastes like…” She took another sip.
“I definitely think this wine tastes like…” She finished the glass.
“Yes, this wine definitely tastes like shit.”
500 people dropped their forks.
There are many reasons to drink Pinot. It can improve the food you’re tasting and make it taste amazingly better. In vast quantities it can make the people you’re drinking with infinitely more amusing. It can be used as a potent tool for scaring the bejesus of anyone within spitting distance.
This involves using the appropriate wine tasting adjectives to describe Pinot Noir. Things like freshly licked feral cat foot. Wax paper and Cheerio dust. Pashmina sheep dander. And my personal favorite, burnt lard. The more often you slip these words into descriptions, the more you’ll have people deferring to you. It’s a great feeling. And let me tell you, if you get to be known as the “burnt lard dude,” you’ll have no trouble getting a last minute reservation at the French Laundry. It’s worked for me.
Even though all you are receiving the same degree this morning. You are a very diverse group of individuals. You might become retailers, viticulturists, sommeliers, or any of a dozen French professions ending in “iers.” Statistically speaking at least two or three of you will go on to have a career in the adult film business. I think you know who you are. And please see me after this lecture.
Remember never to take the gifts you’ve been given for granted. You are among the luckiest people in the world. You have succeeded at your chosen purpose: drinking heavily.
Here’s looking at you kids.